Morals and ethics are a part of our everyday lives. As such, they are a prominent part of popular culture, especially in a franchise like “Star Trek” whose writers regularly tackle philosophical and sociological issues. Let’s continue our exploration of ethics with an epic speech on human morality by Captain Jean-Luc Picard:
Ethics, also referred to as morality, is a discipline that examines right and wrong and the differences between the two. The study of ethics is referred to as moral philosophy.
For our purposes in this class, the terms ethics and morals are almost synonymous, but not quite. They both deal with right and wrong. There is, however, a nuanced difference: Morals refer to a personal code of right and wrong, while ethics are simply a moral code applied to or dictated by an institution or discipline like a company or a profession.
Composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb took a comedic look at values and moral issues in “Class,” a song they wrote for the Broadway musical Chicago, which was made into a film in 2002. In this clip from the movie, Mama Morton (Queen Latifah) and Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) discuss morality with a touch of irony, posing the question “What ever happened to class?”
OUR MORAL CODES
Unlike ethics, basic moral codes are very personal. Each of us has a slightly (or significantly) different view of what is right and what is wrong. Biological and sociological factors drive much of the development of our personal moral codes from childhood into our adult lives. To a certain extent, personal morality is a moving target. As we grow, experience, and learn, we adjust our moral compass in response to these factors.
Aristotle on Ethical Virtue
“All free males [all persons by today’s standards] are born with the potential to become ethically virtuous and practically wise, but to achieve these goals they must go through two stages: during their childhood, they must develop the proper habits; and then, when their reason is fully developed, they must acquire practical wisdom … Ethical virtue is fully developed only when it is combined with practical wisdom” (Kraut).
Aristotle believed that one can become virtuous by following the examples of virtuous people (Pollock 90).
Much of our personal moral/ethical code is developed early in life. This is the learning theory of ethical development which asserts that early in life we learn right and wrong by modeling authorities and having our morals reinforced. Take a moment to examine your own morals and how they have evolved over time.
Moral and ethics are often formed through our experiences, especially after childhood and into adult life. Canadian-American psychologist Albert Bandura believes our moral and social maturity are in a constant state of change. He says we are reacting to outside influences (experience) including family, peers, and social institutions. (Pollock 97).
Among the sociological factors that have a part in forming our personal moral is religion. According to a 2021 Gallup poll, three in four Americans “identify with a specific religious faith” with the majority of 69% identifying with a Christian religion (Jones). Organized religions teach moral codes, and in Christianity we find two clear and direct examples: The Ten Commandments and what has become known as the Golden Rule. It should be noted that the Ten Commandments are present within the first five books of what Christians call the Old Testament. This collection of the books of Moses is known to those of the Jewish faith as the Torah.
Even if we take them completely out of any religious context, these teachings establish an excellent foundation for moral behavior. Consider the Ten Commandments which instruct us not to kill, not to worship false idols or steal or lust after another’s spouse. These are a few examples of the ten rules that can be taken as pretty good pieces of advice for those religious and not.
The Golden Rule, as it is colloquially referred to, is a simple instruction given by Christ to His followers in the Gospel of Matthew: “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12 NAB). It is also recalled in Luke’s Gospel: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). It’s not a bad rule to follow regardless of who we are and what religion we follow, if any.
In a precursor to Christ’s moral statement, first-century BC Jewish leader Rabbi Hillel said, “That which is hateful to you, do not so to your fellow” (“Hillel the Elder”).
What is interesting is that this rule is present in most major world religions including (but not limited to) Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Such moral advice, though, is also found in ancient Greek philosophical writings Isocrates (not Socrates) and Aristotle. While Judaism existed in another part of the world when these men were writing, their moral advice predates Christianity and Islam.
ETHICS AND THE LAW
While ethical issues deal with what is morally right and morally wrong, the discipline neither defines nor depends upon what is legal or illegal. While legal statutes may be based upon a basic moral code, it is possible and often likely for actions to be illegal yet still ethically or morally acceptable, and vice versa. Let’s look at a couple examples:
Ethical, but not Legal
In the following video clip from the Showtime television series “Shameless,” we see Debbie and Ian, two young children from a large and extremely poor family sealing food and coupons with the help of their neighbor Veronica.
This is an illegal act. Stealing is against the law. However, this is not an immoral act. Stealing, in this case, is an ethical act in an effort to feed hungry children who have neither the financial means nor the parental support to provide for themselves.
Legal, but not Ethical
Bill and Sally have been married for several years. Sally begins a sexual relationship with Andrew while still married to Bill. She keeps the relationship a secret. Sally is committing adultery. Adultery, defined as sexual relations between a married person and a person outside said marriage, is considered by many to be immoral.
While Sally’s actions are seen as a violation of a moral code, they are not against the law in the United States.
“Hillel the Elder.” New World Encyclopedia. newworldencyclopedia.org. N.D.
Jones, Jeffery M. “How Religious Are Americans?” Gallup. gallup.com. 23 December 2021.
Kander, John and Fred Ebb. “Class.” Chicago: Music From the Motion Picture. Sony Legacy. 30 April 2006.
Kraut, Richard. “Aristotle’s Ethics.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University. 2 July 2022.
The New American Bible. Catholic World Press. 1 January 1987.
Pollock, Joycelyn M. Ethical Dilemmas and Decisions in Criminal Justice, 9 ed. Cengage, 2017.
Rembrandt. Moses with the Tablets of the Law. Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. 1659. (Public Domain)